Any Approach to Ending Homelessness Needs Shelters to be Awesome

Ending homelessness is not anti-shelter. In fact, in many instances ending homelessness starts with shelter. Let me put this in a system context.

First of all, your community (or your organization if you are a small shelter in a smaller or more rural setting) needs to start by keeping as many people out of shelter as possible when it is safe and appropriate to do so. Great shelter services start with seeing diversion as a service – not a denial of service.

Next you need to understand who the people are that are seeking shelter. They’ll fit into one of three groups: people using shelter for the first time in his/her life; people with a history of episodic use; people that rely on shelters on almost a daily basis (perhaps when they are not in hospital or jail). Regardless of the group, the emphasis on getting out of shelter and into housing should be the same. But, the strategies to achieve that goal will be different. For example, most first time users of a shelter will get out with a very minimal amount of service or no services at all, whereas chronic users may need more in-depth supports to effectively get out of shelter and into housing. Right size your approach based upon need, not one-size fits all.

Look carefully at the programming offered within the shelter. The intent of shelter is not to heal or fix people – it is to provide shelter. Remarkably imperfect people are great at maintaining housing. This includes more complex issues like substance dependency and compromised mental wellness. Does the shelter offer any programming that is unintentionally prolonging anyone’s homelessness or incentivizing their homelessness? If so, rethink those programs. Some common examples include employment programs for people that are homeless, matched savings programs for people that are homeless, and education programs (like getting your GED through a shelter program). Is there a way you can offer these same supports once people get housed? That way you don’t lose your knowledge of how to deliver helpful programs, but you aren’t incentivizing homelessness.

Examine whether the shelter has an infrastructure that is promoting housing solutions. Do people have access to a telephone, computer and landlord listings? Is there a place where a landlord can leave a message that doesn’t “out” the person as being a shelter resident? Are there easily understood directions to the nearest benefits office? Is there access to a bus pass so that a person can get around the city to look at places? In family shelters, is there a service that can mind small children while mom/dad go look for housing without schlepping kids around with them? Are there staff available to answer the most common questions about housing? Are there staff resources (either shelter staff or an external service provider) that can work with people that have more intensive needs in navigating housing access and supports that may be of benefit?

Then look at the range of shelter services in your community (where there is more than one shelter). Is there a coordinated approach to figuring out how to get into shelters and ensure the person gets to the most appropriate shelter based upon his/her presenting issues? Are there any barriers in place of specific shelter providers or across the broad spectrum of shelter providers that impedes someone from getting into shelter? (Examples from my travels – requirements for ID; criminal reference check at the local police station first; documented proof of residency in the community prior to seeking shelter.)

I also encourage the shelter system to have standards of service that transcend more than one shelter provider. This way, from the shelter users perspective, there are certain transparent elements they can expect from any shelter provider. (In other words, they don’t just get lucky and get a “good” shelter provider through coordinated intake.) One of the elements that I urge shelter providers to reach consensus on, for example, are reasons for barring/service restrictions and length of time. I find it baffling that in the same community telling a shelter staff in Shelter A to F*ck off can get someone barred for two weeks, but punching a shelter staff in Shelter B in the face gets someone barred for three days.

But perhaps the most important things shelters can do to help end homelessness is maintain a housing focus in their work. When people are admitted to the shelter remind and encourage them to work on housing. When people are going through the orientation process, remind and encourage them to work on housing. When people are rising in the morning, remind and encourage them to work on housing. Yes, shelters can and should deal with crises and all of the symptoms of system failures that resulted in someone needing shelter in the first place; but if there isn’t a housing focus we will never be able to build enough shelters to keep up with demand.

Over time if your community has a strong focus on ending homelessness the number of shelter beds will be right-sized. But there will never be a day when shelters are not needed. There will always be some people experiencing housing instability. It is foolish to think otherwise. To me it’s like the local fire station – I never want there to be a fire in my home, but I sure am glad the firefighters are close by and ready to help me when there is. I never want people to need shelters, but I sure am glad really well-intentioned, professional people are there to provide shelter when it is absolutely necessary. I just don’t want anyone to confuse a shelter with a home.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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